Will we ever see the likes of Graham Alexander again?

Last updated : 05 July 2011 By Tony Scholes

The day will remain unforgettable because, with just over three minutes of normal time remaining, club captain Graham Alexander left the dug out and prepared to come on as a substitute. In that moment he became only the second ever outfield player in English football to play in 1,000 competitive games, those for club (league and cup) and for country.

In the modern game it is a truly remarkable achievement for a player who started his career at Scunthorpe before moving on to Luton, Preston and then Burnley where he was able, at the age of 37, to add playing Premier League football to his list of achievements.

As I stood to applaud, alongside everyone else inside Turf Moor, I felt privileged that I was able to witness this achievement first hand. It must have been an emotional moment for Grezza but he went out and helped the team see out the game and almost put the thickest piece of icing ever on a cake when he saw his 98th minute free kick tipped onto the underside of the bar by Dorus de Vries, perhaps the only person there not to have read the script.

What a fantastic day it must have been for Grezza and his family, who were all there to see it, but it wasn't all about Saturday, it was just as much about the other 999 times he's put on his boots and gone out and played.

He's all but done it in 20 years with all but three of those games coming since the start of the 1991/92 season when he first established himself in the Scunthorpe side although the first appearance was three seasons earlier than that.

That first appearance came in front of a sparse crowd in the Sherpa Van Trophy on 6th December 1988. Just 1,547 were there to see him come on as a substitute for Richard Money at Scunthorpe's brand new Glanford Park. It was hardly an inspiring introduction as Scunthorpe lost the game 2-1 against Halifax Town.

His league debut came two seasons later, again as a substitute, and again in a home game. This time it was a happier day as Scunthorpe beat Chesterfield 3-0 on 27th April 1991; Alexander coming on for Mark Hine.

By the following season he had become a fixture in the Scunthorpe side and, although he could never have realised it at the time, there was a big day for him on 14th December in that first season.

Burnley and Scunthorpe were both in the fourth division and both doing well. They were fifth and we were third behind Mansfield and Barnet. A change of manager at Turf Moor had seen Jimmy Mullen given the hot seat and we'd won the first nine league games under his charge.

Graham Alexander was in the Scunthorpe team that visited Burnley that day and in what was to be Grezza's first ever appearance at Turf Moor they ended Mullen's 100% record with a 1-1 draw as John Pender put through his own goal to equalise an Andy Farrell opener.

For Grezza's first Turf Moor appearance, the teams were;

Burnley: Chris Pearce, Ian Measham, Joe Jakub, Steve Davis, John Pender, Andy Farrell, Steve Harper, John Deary (Mark Yates), John Francis, Mike Conroy, Roger Eli (Graham Lancashire).

Scunthorpe: Phil Whitehead, Joe Joyce, Paul Longden, Dean Martin, Stuart Hicks, Gary Hyde (Jason White), Graham Alexander, Ian Hamilton, Tony Daws, David Hill, Ian Helliwell.

He played in the 2-2 draw between the clubs later in the season but Burnley and Scunthorpe then had a parting of the ways and the next time we came face to face with him was in games against Luton.

He moved to Kenilworth Road in 1995, joining the same Luton team as Steve Davis who had exited Turf Moor following a relegation. He had almost four years there and the one game I recall more than any other was our 3-2 win there in the 1997/98 season.

The game should always be remarkable for the fact that Michael Williams actually scored a goal. It was a good one too. Gerry Creaney and Paul Barnes got our others but having gone in front with that Williams goal we had to come from behind to win it.

Twice in 3 first half minutes Luton scored from free kicks. Both were scored by Graham Alexander although it has to be said that goalkeeper Marlon Beresford was still organising his wall as one of them flew in unnoticed by the Burnley 'keeper.

Davis returned to Burnley in late 1998 and Alexander almost took the same route a few months later. As Stan Ternent continued to rebuild his Burnley squad it was the Luton player he wanted to come in and play at right-back.

There was a spell in the late 90s when Preston always seemed to land our targets and they did so again here with Alexander missing Burnley by 20 odd miles and signing for North End.

It was at a time when the two Lancashire clubs were just beginning a long run of being in the same division and as such the rivalry intensified. Alexander became the big crowd favourite at Deepdale and it seemed that every time we played them the words 'Alexander' and 'Penalty' would feature prominently.

I think it is fair to say that Burnley fans didn't like him, but in a perverse way that's always testament to a player if he's seriously disliked by the fans of the local rivals. Like most Burnley fans I'd little time for him. All those penalties and the fact that he'd turned us down to go and play for Preston.

Such was his form for Preston that he was called up for his adopted country Scotland and won the first of 40 full caps in April 2002 at the age of 30. Only during the short time Ricardo Fuller was at Deepdale was there a Preston player we probably disliked more.

In late August 2007 I was at Accrington for the reserve game against Blackpool. There was no sign of manager Steve Cotterill, and that was a surprise, he hardly missed a reserve game. I was told that he was busy completing a transfer and that it was Preston right back Graham Alexander.

I scoffed. No way would we get him and no way would he leave Preston. The following day we confirmed the signing of Graham Alexander for £200,000 and on a deal until the end of the 2008/09 season. Preston weren't prepared to offer him anything further than the remainder of that 2007/08 season and Cotterill had jumped in quickly to get him.

Preston manager Paul Simpson was unhappy at the sale and the deal wasn't met with great enthusiasm by a lot of Burnley supporters. The message board on this site was very luke warm in its welcome whilst I wrote that finally we'd landed ourselves a right back.

Phil Bardsley had turned us down days earlier. We'd tried to sign Stuart Parnaby from Middlesbrough in the summer but he'd opted for Birmingham. Yes, finally a right back.

Then, astonishingly, Cotterill suggested he might not play there. In welcoming the player who proved to be his last Burnley signing, Cotterill said: "I have known Graham for a few years and we would have liked to have had him here five or ten years ago, but we have got him here now and we are going to enjoy him.

"I don't think there is a question over his quality and his age. He could be one of those players who has got even better with age. We are just delighted to have him.

"We agreed a fee with Preston on Wednesday night but I feel we get more than a right back in Graham. He can play well in midfield and it will depend who we are playing against and where as to where he may play in the team.

"He is a captain, a leader and a winner and all those are vital ingredients you want in your team on a Saturday."

Midfield? Cotterill was openly mocked on the message board with many accusing him of losing the plot completely. Why on earth would he sign the PFA's right back of the year and then play him in midfield?

But that's where he did play him at Colchester just days later as Graham Alexander started the next chapter of his career. That's where Cotterill wanted to play him and that's where he would have continued to play him had Michael Duff not suffered a serious injury.

We'd no option but to play Grezza at right back then although Cotterill's priority then was to get another right back on loan to allow him to move Alexander back into that midfield role. A deal had been struck for Sheffield United's Leigh Bromby to come in and play at right back but that suddenly ended when Cotterill departed.

That right back position proved to be a problem for too long but finally, a few games into the 2008/09 season, Grezza was moved back into midfield, although he did continue to play some games at right back.

We looked a much better side with him in that position and it proved to be the season that Graham Alexander, and Burnley, finally reached the pinnacle of Premier League football.

What an influence he was in that season. This wasn't the elder statesman in the team pickup up appearances. He was one of the mainstays of that team who incredibly played in every single one of our 61 games and was substituted just twice.

He became our penalty taker that season and yet it was the memory of our worst night of the season that I'll recall Grezza most easily. The television pictures at the end of our cup defeat to Spurs show a clearly distraught Graham Alexander. Just like everyone of us in the stands his face told the story of one of the most heartbreaking nights in recent Burnley history.

He'd had plenty like that previously with a succession of play off failures. The first was at Scunthorpe in 1992 as they lost the final on penalties to Blackpool. Incredibly he missed his spot kick. And then there were the play offs with Preston, too many to mention for him.

Finally he got his moment at Wembley in May 2009. He didn't pick up the man of the match award but turned in another assured performance as we beat Sheffield United 1-0. Peter Beagrie described him as a major influence after the final whistle; that was understating his value to the team.

The Premier League season saw a rarity for him. He sustained an injury at Bolton, of all places, that ruled him out of our next five league games. I think that's just about the only injury he's had at Burnley in almost four years.

He captained the side for much of last season because of Steven Caldwell's injury problems and when Caldwell left in the summer he was rightly appointed club captain. Unfortunately this has proved to be a more difficult season for him.

He's still made 29 league appearances but only 15 of those have been starts and he hasn't started a game for us since the home draw with Queens Park Rangers in mid-January.

Since then it has been a succession of late substitute appearances that did look as though they were designed to get him up to that 1,000 games. In so many ways it was a disappointing way to do it but when he made his entrance last Saturday that was all very much forgotten.

I don't know how much longer Grezza will go on as a player but I do know he'll continue to play as long as he thinks he is fit enough to do so.

I said I felt privileged to be there to see that 1,000th appearance but I think I've been privileged to have been able to watch Burnley for the last four years with Graham Alexander in the team. He's proved to be a fantastic signing, one of the best in recent years, and his contribution to Burnley Football Club has been immense.

Wherever his career takes him he'll never be forgotten at Burnley and should he choose to move on to get more regular football elsewhere then, no matter where it is, I'm sure not one single Burnley supporter would begrudge him that.

Well done Grezza on your achievement. The accolades that have come your way have been so fully deserved. I'm just delighted that you chose Burnley in August 2007 and allowed us to be part of your remarkable career.